Fitness Makeover: Stay motivated by refocusing your goals

Most of the Makeover requests that came in from readers this month had a similar theme, or problem, that seems to crop up around this time of year for all of us.

It is the struggle to set goals, and to stay motivated over the long haul even after you may have surpassed your initial expectations.

While last months Fitness Makeover focused on a triathlete who didnt know what to do in the off-season, this months mailbag differed. People wanted to know how to set goals, what goals to set, and finally how to stick with them over the long haul (and not just for a season or two).

Hunter Hatfield writes that his first serious athletic endeavor after a lifetime of inactivity was to attempt completing a marathon in the years after college. He was successful in his goal, but then struggled to stay athletic when he decided he didnt want to continue the grueling lifestyle of a serious marathon runner.

Sandy Terwilliger did a sprint triathlon two years ago, suffering from multiple physical ailments during the two months she trained before calling it quits. At 53 years young, she would like to get back in shape, minus all the illnesses she faced in her previous endeavor. With step aerobics, weight training, and yoga mixed with light swimming and jogging, she wonders how she can stay focused on this lifestyle and not succumb to the misfortunes of intense short-term training that more immediate goals might require.

Kathleen Reddy is a former competitive swimmer who, at 35, just joined a masters team and was humbled in her first practice. Hoping to lose 30 pounds, compete in the Alcatraz swim race, and finish a short-distance triathlon by next year, she has always relied on training partners as a source of motivation. She struggles to keep her spirits up, as the swim team experience was daunting for someone just getting back into the swim.

All of the above cases, and several others who wrote, knew that they wanted to develop a program that would keep them healthy and happy over the long haul. However, they each brought up the fact that without concrete short-term goals or sources of motivation, they lost all hopes of sticking with their commitment.

Within weeks or months, all of the case studies confessed that they lost hope, lost focus, and lost interest in their training altogether.

I am not a self-help guru, nor am I a miracle worker. But I have been a competitive swimmer for nearly three decades and a frequent triathlete and marathon runner for the last 10 years. My lifestyle has always been athletic, and I have been fortunate enough to compete at a level where I am surrounded by elite swimmers who have taught me a thing or two about motivation.

As such, I can share a few ideas about what keeps me motivated, and what makes the best athletes I know more successful than their counterparts.

Love your lifestyle

The most important thing to remember is that adopting an athletic interest and turning it into a habitual practice is a lifestyle choice, not a task.

Our culture places far too much emphasis on short-term tasks lose 30 pounds in six to eight weeks! Make $30k in one month! Get in shape now! without offering realistic ways of maintaining those unreasonable demands.

As a result, we hear of people who lose the weight, only to gain it back. We all know someone who made a killing in the stock market, only to lose their shirt. Weve each joined a gym or started a fitness program as a New Years resolution, only to lose interest a few short months later.

The answer lies not in placing such high pressure on yourself that your training program becomes threatening to your overall happiness, but rather in designing a long-term approach that you can love.

No one swims for three decades unless they love diving into the pool every day. No one runs multiple marathons unless they love the rush of endorphins during those training runs. And no athlete needs to justify why they do a sport if they choose to commit to it with passion and unwavering focus; the proof of their success be it world records, weight loss, or lower blood pressure is in their dedication and love of the sport.

Hunter, Sandy, and Kathleen need to identify what they enjoy about the daily experience of practicing their fitness activity, and use that as their source of inspiration to achieve their long-term goals. Its a lot easier losing 30 pounds doing something that you love than doing something that you dread, right?

Be realistic

Hunter Hatfield achieved his initial desire of becoming a successful marathon runner. But without another monumental goal after his first race, he lost interest in training. Besides, the physical toll his body took from the endurance running prevented him from continuing such long distances.

Obviously, over the long haul, marathons may not be the answer for Hunter. But if he enjoys running, there are several other equally challenging goals he can set for himself. Perhaps he can work on developing his speed, and train for and compete in 5- and 10Ks with a goal of finishing in less than X time. Another option is to enter a triathlon or open-water swim that might spike his interest in cross-training suddenly the monotony and physical toll he may have experienced running long distances is countered with two new sports and plenty of room for improvement, recovery, and competition.

As for Sandy, it sounds like she dedicated herself to eight weeks of boot camp, putting her body through a physical beating just to complete a sprint triathlon. It is no wonder she suffered from a series of ailments and infections that dampened her interest in consistently intense training.

Instead of focusing on such a monumental task for eight unforgiving weeks, Sandy should give herself more time to achieve a fitness goal, and make incremental changes to her routine. Rome was not built in a day, and with foresight and a little planning, she can avoid injury and develop a program that she enjoys over the long haul.

With several activities already in her weekly schedule, she is on the right track to creating a habitually active (read: healthy) lifestyle as long as she looks forward to what she is doing.

Kathleen jumped into a masters program after years of being away from the pool (and we all know how ferociously competitive masters swimmers can be!). It is no wonder she felt humbled, and unsure of how to continue without the support of a training partner her own speed. If she can approach the masters workouts with an open mind, allowing herself a few months to get in shape and drop the weight shed like to lose, maybe the sessions wont be so daunting.

Kathleen may be a former competitive swimmer, but she need not place pressure on herself to be the lane leader of the fast group. By allowing herself the luxury of a leisurely re-acquaintance to the sport, she will avoid feelings of inadequacy and the disappointment that comes from unrealistic/premature expectations.

In time, as she gets faster, she may find a lane mate her own speed who can become the motivating training partner she wishes she had. Regardless of the sport, training groups, organized teams, and workout partners are a terrific way of finding inspiration and motivation in your peers the challenge lies in finding the right one.

Be flexible

Besides creating an active lifestyle that you can enjoy and look forward to on a daily basis, it is important to allow for flexibility. Many dedicated athletes keep detailed training logs, documenting their every activity, repetition, weight lifted. A missed workout results in panic attacks about gaining weight, losing muscle, or when to squeeze in a make-up session. Remember that dedication and commitment is a state of mind, and not necessarily a physical display of day-in, day-out 100% attendance.

There are days you may want in fact, need to take off. There are weeks that you may opt to avoid your normal workout in favor of a newfound sport. There may be entire seasons where you replace one activity with the intention of mastering another.

Regardless of the reason, make sure to remind yourself that you are training because you enjoy it and if you dont its OK to find something else and modify your long-term program. An organic, ever-flowing approach to an active lifestyle will help you avoid burnout and in Hunters marathon running example it could help you avoid injury.

People always ask me how I can swim for several hours at a time and not get bored. My response is always the same: I do it because I love it, and when I get bored I get out of the pool and do something else.

I would recommend this approach to our three makeover examples, and to the rest of the readers who asked about how to stay dedicated and focused.

View your training time as a privilege and a luxury, and apply yourself when you do it. Keep in mind that there will be days when you wont have it in you, and thats OK too. But if exercising is more like a necessary evil that you endure just to fit into those jeans you bought 10 years ago, then I guarantee that it will not be something you adapt as a lifestyle for the long haul.

Just as weight-loss experts recommend permanent changes in ones diet in order to lose weight and keep it off rather than gain it back, so too is it important to develop a lifestyle conducive to physical fitness if long term health is a priority.

If you are interested in being the subject of a Fitness Makeover, please e-mail your questions to Alex, and include a phone number where you can be reached upon your selection.

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